What Is Leadership?
A simple definition of leadership – the ability to inspire and influence others to take a specific course of action.
However, the practice of leadership is far more complex, and cannot be fully understood through such a basic interpretation.
To start, leadership exists in many forms. It can be in a professional context, where an individual has been given the opportunity to lead a team in pursuit of organizational goals.
In that case, leadership and management need to be distinguished.
The latter, management, is the role the person has been given, whilst it is the former, leadership, that can determine their success in that role.
Leadership also exists in a personal context, for example where an individual chooses to rally support and effect change for a cause they are passionate about.
A leadership definition is further complicated by the fact that there are many different leadership styles, each suited more to particular circumstances than others.
Whatever the context, effective leaders all have a set of key qualities that enables them to help others achieve their goals.
They can communicate thoughts and ideas in a way that gives them real meaning and they can bring people together under a common cause, empowering and motivating them to perform at their best.
This article will focus on leadership in a professional context, exploring its variations in the workplace and how to develop your own leadership skills.
As delineated above, leadership and management are different; although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not one in the same.
Not all managers are effective leaders, and equally, you do not have to be in a managerial position to show your leadership qualities.
In fact, there are some kinds of leadership that are easier to exercise when you are not directly responsible for managing other people.
Leadership is achievable by everyone, regardless of their exact role within an organization or level of experience. It is also one of the key areas to focus on when working towards your short term career goals: when you work on your ability to motivate and inspire those around you, and show this in action, you set yourself apart as a strong candidate for promotional opportunities.
Understanding the multiple ways leadership can present itself in the workplace is key to identifying your own strengths and developing your own leadership style.
Below are some of the most common forms:
Practical leaders are hands-on. They help others fulfil their responsibilities by giving clear and specific direction.
They typically adopt visual learning strategies; for example, they will give a physical demonstration of how to complete a certain task.
In some cases, they will even be actively involved and work on tasks alongside their teams.
Practical leaders are good listeners with a high degree of patience. They take the time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of employees so they can better assist them with improvement.
Practical leadership is a good example of a leadership style you can implement at any level of seniority.
If a colleague is struggling with an activity you are skilled at, you can empower them to achieve more by offering step by step guidance.
These leaders are those who encourage others through teaching, giving them the knowledge they need to achieve their goals.
Rather than allowing an individual to pursue ineffective practices, educational leaders will offer constructive criticism and help them refine their approach.
You might think of an educational leader as a mentor – someone that passes on their own skills and experience to those who follow in their footsteps.
Things like performance reviews are an integral part of this leadership style.
These allow employees and those who lead them to work together in assessing performance and setting realistic goals for development.
This style is where the separate concepts of management and leadership come together as one.
This type of leadership is the formal management of others, delegating tasks, overseeing work and training, and organizing HR requirements like recruitment.
It is a type of leadership that follows existing practices and procedures, and is often results-driven. For example, a managerial leader may encourage a team to achieve targets based on tried-and-tested sales techniques.
Though it can be viewed as a somewhat rigid approach, managerial leadership has its place in organizations where rules need to be followed, such as laboratories with strict health-and-safety procedures, and authority needs to be appointed to ensure as such.
These leaders influence and energise others through their actions. They lead by example, demonstrating qualities like positivity, integrity and ambition, motivating others to follow suit.
Inspirational leaders take interest in the career development of those around them, investing time and effort into nurturing talent.
They are charismatic to the degree that it sparks enthusiasm in their followers, pushing them to be the best that they can be.
This is another type of leadership you can focus on at any level, simply by being a positive influence and encouraging coworkers to achieve their full potential.
Empathy is one of the most effective communication skills, and those that demonstrate it make for good leaders.
Those that adopt this leadership style form strong bonds with employees and are on hand to provide emotional support. They also take the thoughts and feelings of others into account when making strategic decisions.
An empathetic leader has the final say, but believes the best ideas come from collaborative input.
Academic leaders are somewhat different to leaders in industry. Their strengths lie in research and problem solving, which they use to inform strategic direction.
They are experts in their field, with years of experience that gives them the credentials to advise on evidence based policies, practices and procedures.
An academic leader's presence may not always be physically seen or felt, but their influence is evident through the actions an organization chooses to take.
Each type of leadership has its own time and place and some forms are more effective in certain circumstances than others.
As mentioned, managerial leadership works well when there are rules that need to be followed, and strategic organization is required to achieve a desired goal.
Take a military environment for example. Those in charge of leading a troop need to assert a level of authority that ensures safety and compliance. They need to delegate responsibilities and keep a close eye on performance.
Managerial leadership is however somewhat restrictive. In following rules and regulations, it can stunt creativity and innovation. When this is the desired goal, such as in the design office of a clothing company, an approach like practical or educational leadership is better suited, where employees are encouraged to explore and develop their own strengths.
Academic leaders work with a level of autonomy, operating behind the scenes when important decisions need to be made. By contrast, an empathetic leader needs a team to engage with to make the most of their skill set.
It is worth noting here that the types of leadership outlined here rarely stand on their own. In fact, the most effective form of leadership combines various approaches. A strong leader will judge every situation on its own merits and adopt the most appropriate style in response.
Whatever stage of your career you are at, it is never too early to start working on your leadership skills. It should be looked at as a form of personal development, as well as a professional benefit.
Start with an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses before evaluating how best to use your skills in a leadership context.
You can also follow some standard practices to help you become a more effective leader:
Ask for more responsibility – One of the best ways to develop your leadership skills is to step out of your comfort zone and put them to the test. It is important you do not take on more than you can cope with, and do not allow your boss to take you for granted, but showing some initiative is a good first step into leadership territory.
Start looking at the bigger picture – The best leaders see problems before they arise and implement plans to avoid them. To do this, you need to understand how organizational goals are achieved and the potential pitfalls that can throw progress off track. So instead of focusing on your role alone, look at how all departments work together. The deeper your knowledge, the better leader you will become.
Be an active listener – Good leadership is all about taking everyone’s views into account so work on your ability to listen and consider things from different perspectives.
Learn to collaborate – This is a key attribute of a good leader, so build on your workplace collaboration skills. Go out of your way to engage with and assist those both in and outside of your immediate team, be actively involved in discussions and ideas sessions, respect others’ opinions – there are countless ways to develop and demonstrate effective collaboration.
Decide what kind of leader you want to be – as this article has shown, there are many different types of leadership, and understanding which is your desired goal will help you develop the right strengths and competencies,and start putting them into practice.
Everyone has the capacity to be a leader in some form of the term. It does not matter whether you are fresh out of college or five years into your professional career, we all have innate strengths that we can use to inspire and motivate those around us.
These strengths can also be built upon and, with a little perseverance, you can nurture your talents to become a truly inspirational leader.